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State broadcaster SABC responds to allegations that it manipulated news for political purposes

(MISA/IFEX) - On 11 March 2009, the SABC denied allegations that its head of news, Snuki Zikalala, manipulated content for political purposes. "The Mail and Guardian" online reports that the Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI) had earlier accused the public broadcaster and Zikalala of manipulating content at a hearing by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa's (ICASA) Complaints Compliance Committee in Sandton. SABC counsel Ishmael Semenya said Zikalala was entitled to ask that certain commentators not be used in terms of "editorial independence" Zikalala had supplied reasons for his decisions, and they were not "irrational", Semenya added.

Zikalala's reasons included concerns about research capacity (in connection with Aubrey Matshiqi), accuracy (journalist Karima Brown) and bias (Middle Eastern freelancer Paula Slier). In the interest of editorial balance, the SABC had given KwaZulu-Natal Premier S'bu Ndebele screen time to comment on an incident at a stadium during which he was pelted.

Semenya said that contrary to the FXI submission, the SABC did in fact show Ndebele being pelted and running for cover under a table that was carried over his head. The SABC never threatened disciplinary action against journalist Mandla Zembe, and senior news staffer Pippa Green for reporting on the stadium incident, as alleged.

In fact, Zembe never stated this as a reason for leaving the public broadcaster, and had said he wanted to return to cover the April elections. On accusations that the SABC's coverage of the 2005 Zimbabwe elections was biased towards Robert Mugabe, Semenya said Green had actually congratulated the team for their good reports.

Earlier, the commission had heard from the FXI's counsel Wim Trengove, of a complaint over the matter by Green. But, said Semenya: "She is making the case for the SABC that the reports on Zimbabwe were fair and balanced and done in an independent way."

Semenya said neither the complaints commission nor ICASA could tell the SABC how it should cover stories because these were the SABC's own independent editorial decisions. ICASA could also not order them to remedy anything, or take disciplinary action against Zikalala because that was the job of the SABC's own internal mechanism. He denied that the SABC lied in a statement that there was no blanket ban on certain political commentators. Excluding some commentators could not be considered a blanket ban, argued the SABC.

Trying to get a court interdict to prevent "The Mail and Guardian" from publishing the findings of its own commission of enquiry on the allegations was not improper, Semenya noted. The SABC had a right to protect its own proprietary material, the counsel said.

Furthermore, the hearing head that former SAfm host John Perlman was not denied freedom of expression when he discussed the matter on air. He was allowed to talk when he interviewed SABC spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago on the "blacklist" and contradicted him on air.

The commission adjourned on 11 March to deliberate on its findings.

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